On a warm and breezy Saturday night recently in Spicewood, TX, five musicians played together on an outdoor stage, channeling the music of the late, great Tom Petty, as they have been doing at various venues for the past 11 years, to the delight of Petty fans lucky enough to have caught one of their shows. Those five musicians are The Damn Torpedoes, a Tom Petty tribute band based in Austin, TX. Blessed to be in the audience that night, I was enraptured as they played a selection of Petty tunes flawlessly over the course of two hours, with tracks from Petty’s first album through to his last album before passing in 2017.
The Spicewood location was the Iron Wolf Distillery, an elegant distilling facility nestled in the Texas Hill Country among spring wildflowers; a fitting location for a performance featuring some of Petty’s best work from his album of the same name. The spirits of the distillery complemented the upbeat mood of the show.
The Damn Torpedoes are fronted by Ty Hurless, who channels Tom Petty impeccably, from looks to sound. I interviewed Ty earlier in the week, as part of Zipgig’s Spotlight Chronicles music blog. Ty shared stories about how he came into the world of music, what Tom Petty’s music means to him, and how the tribute band keeps Petty’s music alive for fans.
In the wake of the pandemic, the show felt cathartic, with Tom’s melodic songs and heartfelt lyrics sounding even more poignant than they normally do. For days after the show ended, my thoughts drifted back to the performance that night, listening to songs I can practically sing my sleep — Breakdown, American Girl, Runnin’ Down a Dream, Women in Love, Mary Jane’s Last Dance, and many others.
Below is my interview with Ty. I’m looking forward to attending more of their shows around Austin and around Texas and beyond.
Spotlight Chronicles: Tell me about you, how you came to be a musician, what inspires you to make music?
Ty Hurless: I grew up in NE Ohio and loved music from early childhood. As a kid, there was a cool, vibrant rock scene in our part of the country. I lived in Canton, just south of Cleveland OH, which in the 70’s and 80’s, had a reputation of being the ‘rock n roll capital of the world’. This was partly-based on the famous 50s rock n roll DJ, Alan Freed, who coined the phrase “rock ‘n roll” and broadcast out of Cleveland. During this period of my childhood, there was a successful effort to get the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame built in Cleveland, OH. One of the big proponents of this campaign was nationally-known rock station, WMMS, and their top DJ, Kid Leo, whose influence was another contributor to Cleveland’s rock n roll capital reputation.
As a kid, I was immersed in what you call classic rock today. I was surrounded by that, maybe because I had a young mother who loved rock, and my family and the people around me were mostly young people. My aunt’s brother-in-law played drums and sang lead in a band playing original music around NE Ohio, called La Flavour. Having a connection to this guy, whose band went on to a decent amount of success, even performing on American Bandstand, was a pivotal and inspiring moment for me. Loving music and being mesmerized by electric guitar, I saved up my money and bought myself a Silver Sunburst custom Les Paul guitar at 16 years old. I did take a few lessons but started teaching myself by ear and learned how to play the rock songs that were coming out of my old school stereo speakers, and eventually started playing with a neighborhood drummer friend, David Odell, in his mom’s basement. Then I met some other musicians that had some stuff going on and we formed a band when I was about 21 years old. We started playing clubs around Ohio for a while, but that eventually fell apart.
From there I guess I got distracted and disheartened, and quit playing music for years. I went to college at University of Akron and got my degree in Accounting but found myself at a crossroads when I got out. I decided I wanted to leave Ohio and play music again. I had a friend living in Austin who told me about the music scene there. Some years later, I moved to Austin and eventually started playing in various bands, little things here and there. I teamed up with a guy named Kevin Sekhani, who had been playing original music around town for years. He and I decided to start writing our own stuff and put out an album together. So then that ran its course and at that point, frustrated with the difficulty and challenges that original music presents, and inspired by fellow musicians who I respected who were performing covers, I realized performing cover music to larger audiences for better pay was nothing to be embarrassed about. My next challenge was to decide what my niche was going to be…I didn’t want to form the typical run-of-the-mill cover band. After some thought, I landed on the idea of a tribute to rock legend, Tom Petty, and formed The Damn Torpedoes eleven years ago with bandmates Geno Stroia and Tim Veillon. We’ve made a name for ourselves in Austin, and we are very proud of
Austin is a unique town, and it has a well-known, highly-regarded music scene with a reputation for originality. Musicians flock here to create music and perform and it’s an original music town for the most part. It’s think it’s changing a bit because of the economics, but by and large, people come here to be original artists, and cover bands can get a bad rap. I was like so many others who moved here; I wanted to play original music, but moving here doesn’t mean that you will be successful. There’s so much that goes in, hard work, good luck and on and on… There’s also a tremendous amount of competition, so there’s much much more than the act of creating music. If everything doesn’t come together, you won’t be able to make a real living. As I said earlier, I saw other folks that were doing covers, like the Austin cover band Skyrocket, that is comprised of musicians that had been performing their own original music projects in the Austin scene for years but started their cover project to great success. Their spin on it was unique and that’s what I was looking for. Seeing what they created, playing to packed houses and having a great time doing it, gave me the impetus to start my project.
How did the Tribute band come to be and how long has it been playing? Is there a member of your band that corresponds to each member of the Heartbreakers or do you improvise the band make up?
Ty Hurless: The band formed in 2009 and played our first show inadvertently and coincidentally on Tom’s 59th birthday on October 20th. I don’t know if it was serendipity or kismet, or what, but ever since then I think we’ve paid tribute with a special connection to his music – and our 12th anniversary will be this October. As far as corresponding to the members of the Heartbreakers, as the front man in the role of Tom, I make a concerted effort to look and play the part. We’ve always felt that getting the sound right was paramount, and we’ve worked hard to do that, but I’ve also believed that adding that visual aspect helps to complete the illusion and enhances the show. I really want people from a distance to feel like they’re actually at a Tom Petty concert, and if I resemble him in terms of my hair and dress, etc. that hopefully gets that across. No disrespect intended to the Heartbreakers (in case they’re reading this), but I think they’d agree that they aren’t as identifiable as Tom and so trying to replicate their personas on stage hasn’t been a big focus for us.
Spotlight Chronicles: How do Tom Petty’s songs speak to you individually as a musician?
Ty Hurless: I was a huge fan of the music. His songs are universal, classic, indelible. It’s a cliched saying but his music is the soundtrack of our lives, and the songs are inescapable. I guess I was first captured by the Tom Petty of the 70’s, starting out in the mid to late 70’s with songs like American Girl, Listen to Her Heart, Breakdown and I Need To Know. Then in ‘79, he released his breakout album, “Damn the Torpedoes”. There were massive hits on there, like Refugee and Don’t Do Me Like That, and all those songs spoke to me. They were all mind-blowing. Of course then the video era came along and Tom morphed into that era easily and seamlessly. He produced artistic videos that stood the test of time. I continued following his career through the MTV era and stayed with him as an artist. The amazing thing is, he continued putting out great music even after the video era ended, and did so until the day he died.
What are the range of songs that you cover from Petty?
Ty Hurless: We play everything from his entire career, including his “solo” albums – which always included members of the Heartbreakers – as well as Traveling Wilburys numbers. We also do songs that Tom didn’t write but the Heartbreakers cover in their shows. But, of course we do it the way that Tom Petty and the band cover those songs, staying true to the spirit of the Heartbreakers. For instance, there is a song called Oh Well, of the Peter Green era of Fleetwood Mac, that Tom covered, and we cover it at nearly every show because it’s such a rocker. The Byrds were a big influence on Tom and he incorporated their jangly sound into his music and covered their songs like So You Want To Be a Rock n Roll Star and Feel A Whole Lot Better, which I occasionally put in our setlists.
We play everything from his first album to his last album, which was called Hypnotic Eye. Stylistically, the range spans the whole musical spectrum, from the early straight ahead rock n roll to his later 80s, Jeff Lynne-produced stuff, with all the overdubs and layering. He went on to put out Wildflowers, which was produced by Rick Rubin, and it has a far more sparse, singer-songwriter feel. We go through his career and represent all these different eras and styles, and it’s challenging but, again, something we’ve worked hard to achieve.
Spotlight Chronicles: What kind of shows do you do? Types of venues? What are your favorites?
Ty Hurless: We do ‘em all…local clubs, out of town stuff, all over Texas, out of state, private parties, wedding receptions, festivals, fundraisers, everything under the sun. We do love playing in Austin, and the One-2-One bar and Saxon Pub on S.Lamar, Antones, and so many others were ones that we played on a regular basis before COVID. Saxon is always a favorite because it’s so intimate, the people are right there, almost sitting in your lap. You can feel the energy, the human interaction. You feed off the energy of the crowd. Sam’s Burger Joint in San Antonio is another favorite where you really feel the energy. Of course, we do love the big halls too, House of Blues in Houston and Dallas and Aztec Theatre in San Antonio. They have that big rock show feel, which is always a thrill.
Spotlight Chronicles: Was there a change in the way you approached your tribute after Tom passed?
Ty Hurless: We took his death very hard. It was the last thing we expected to happen. The first few shows after he passed were very raw and emotional, and naturally there was a lot of demand for our band. Understandably, people wanted to remember him. We were fielding so many requests, and we stayed busy. I think the biggest thing for us is we don’t want to disrespect his music. We take it very seriously and now that he is gone, we feel like we’re helping to keep his spirit and music alive. People ask if I channel him sometimes, and I don’t know how to answer that but I do try to perform the songs as if I wrote them because I want them to feel genuine. There is some emulation that is conscious and some of it is maybe a natural physical similarity. When I sing, I try to use his inflection without it being cartoonish. Ultimately, I want the audience to feel like they can close their eyes and feel like they are at one of his shows.
Spotlight Chronicles: Describe your connection to your audience? How is it special to you?
Ty Hurless: I relate to the audience because I’ve always been a music fan too. I really love live music and I have the thing they are experiencing in common with them. I think the tribute band experience in particular is a moment in time to take a deep breath and pause and transport back to a time in your life when you first heard the song the band is performing. In our case, Tom Petty’s music has meant so much to so many and we’ve had so many fans tell us being at our show was cathartic for them. I also have a great deal of appreciation for them being there and supporting us because we couldn’t do it without them…
Spotlight Chronicles: If you could do a second tribute band, who would it be for?
Ty Hurless: Possibly David Bowie or maybe The Beatles. Those are two of my all-time favorite artists. This is kind of random, but I always thought it’d be fun to do a Rick Springfield tribute band. He’s got great music that people don’t know about and a little bit of the tribute show is an education in an artist’s repertoire.
Spotlight Chronicles: Do you ever write your own music? Do you plan to?
Ty Hurless: I’ve written music throughout my life and have co-written and participated in original recordings over the years. Right now, I’m in the process of finishing a backlog of unfinished stuff, and have recently had a surge of creativity which I’m trying to take advantage of. My goal for this year is to get all this stuff demo-ed and recorded. I’m not sure how far I’ll get on the recording part, but hope to be out performing those songs in a smaller setting later this year and hope my Damn Torpedoes friends will follow me.
Spotlight Chronicles: What advice do you have for younger artists starting out in Austin, either performing originals or covers, to gain a following, advance their music, get gigs at better venues?
Ty Hurless: I would tell younger artists and musicians that the thing that will get you the farthest is persistence. Keep trying and don’t ever give up, even when the gigs seem hopeless. Put everything you have into every gig, whether you’re in front of two people or 2,000. Just keep working and keep getting better at what you do.
Spotlight Chronicles: What music advice would you give your younger self?
Ty Hurless: The advice I’d give my younger self is just to believe in yourself and believe in your talent and abilities. Don’t sabotage yourself. Everyone starts somewhere and you’re better than you think you are. (This is also a piece of advice I’d add to the above) 🙂
What do you want your audience to feel and remember when they leave your shows?
Ty Hurless: I want them to come away feeling lighter; feeling energized and happy. I want them to know the power of great music. Tom Petty’s music in particular. The power that music has to uplift and how it resonates.
We hope to see folks out at our shows, We have shows coming up, the calendar is getting booked. We are playing around Austin, playing around Texas. For anyone with reservations about tribute bands, our band will change your mind.
Thank you Ty for the interview and the rest of The Damn Torpedoes for the amazing show. I really enjoyed the performance at Iron Wolf Distillery!